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Cliquishness And Bullying Among Parents

Last night I sat in a large PTO meeting. I giggled through agenda items with a table full of my friends from the old group, compared notes in stage whispers, and texted friends across the room.
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High school doesn't end with graduation. Every stage of life has some version of jockeying for popularity, or gossiping behind one anothers' backs, or not wanting to be the one who doesn't fit in. It happens in college (but with bigger books) and in first jobs (but with paychecks) and in adulthood, (but with houses and cars.) It happens in parenting too -- as much as the right parent friend can be an anchor when things get rough, a not-so-right friend can fan insecurity and bring you back, well, to high school.

Enter Allena Tapia. She might not have been a Queen Bee in high school, but confesses that she certainly runs with the Mean Girl crowd now that she has children of her own. In an essay for Parentlode she explains how life looks from her side of the lunchroom, and concludes that your mother was not completely wrong -- even the most popular seeming girl (or Mom) doesn't feel nearly as confident as she might look.

Whether you choose to muster sympathy for her, however, will likely depend on exactly which clique you ran with in high school. -- Lisa Belkin, Parentlode

I want to start with excuses. As a freelance writer, I have many hours to give to my children's schools, and I've done so freely. I've spent the last seven years up to my elbows in volunteer hours and helped to build one of the most functional, giving and productive PTO groups around. It took time, work, and compromise on the part of a core group of parents, but we managed to establish a group that coalesced well, a budget that was stable, and an agenda of yearly events that balanced the kids' needs with the teachers' needs. It wasn't easy at all, but along the way we got to know each other's families fairly well, and I am now proud to count those other parents among my closest friends.

And then things changed.

This past summer, our district's new superintendent met with a small group of parents in the high school cafeteria. There, among the smells of ammonia cleaner mixed with salad bar, we combined the three PTOs of the district's elementary schools into one big organization. And that's where the problems started.

Last night I sat in the large PTO's meeting. I giggled through agenda items with a table full of my friends from the old group, compared notes in stage whispers, and texted friends across the room. We were sitting at those long, fold-up cafeteria tables that are ubiquitous in school cafeterias, and looking up and down "my" table, it dawned on me. We're a clique. We're the Mean Girls. I'm the Lindsay Lohan of the over-30 crowd.

Each person at that table was from the "old" PTO. We commiserated about "others" from the other schools' groups. Our laughs and text notifications interrupted the meeting. Our sheer numbers helped us to get what we wanted when it came to votes and budget items. I admit it -- sitting at that table, surrounded by people that I counted as friends, I felt popular. I felt that I belonged. I felt in charge. It was like high school again, but this time I was one of the Plastics.

Stories abound when it comes to school-based bullying. But what about adults? Although I've not gone as far as some of the mothers you wind up hearing about on the news, I do admit to practicing a few Mean Girl ways. My clique knows whose marriage is on the rocks, who's dating after a divorce, and who just bought the newest Coach (not from the factory store). We have opinions about the Stay-At-Home Mom who seems to have too much time on her hands and wants to plan, like, everything, and about that Executive Mom who bosses her husband around in public. We text about it. We talk about it. In the car pool lanes and on Facebook. Often.

Hey, friends gossip- right? But my excuses are empty and I know that. Yes, I've worked long, unpaid hours for this organization, and that does give me some right to steering it through votes and volunteering. And it's true that I've got to know these moms and their lives and their personalities and their dramas. They've become more than acquaintances to me -- some of them have become friends, co-mothers even. I trust my children in their care; they return the favor.

But herein lies the solution, and it's two-fold. First, my advice to the other mothers out there -- the ones who may be looking for a place to sit in the cafeteria. Don't take the easy out of "I don't help with the PTO because they're just one big clique." Getting along in "one big clique" is what happens when people work together month in and month out for years. It doesn't mean you can't join us. Don't play the victim, and don't use it as an excuse not to be involved in your child's education.

Second, I will take my own advice. I became fast friends with these other parents because we share the same values. We're willing to get up to our elbows (in Halloween crafts) and do the heavy lifting (of book fair boxes). The same can be said for the rest of the organization, and for all those "other" moms. No one comes to a PTO meeting for the stale cookies and scorched coffee. These parents are here for the same reason as I am -- to do right by our children, and to support our schools. Even the "others." Reaching out to them, working alongside them, and building a new organization is the only way for the group to move forward. I can do that.

Just don't ask me to give up my seat at the popular table.